The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
When we talk about ‘religious music’, most of us western pop music lovers mean Christian music because, like it or not, Christianity is still the leading religion in the UK and Europe, USA, Australia and other countries. I don’t know if there has ever been a top 40 single on an Islamic or Hindu theme, although we did have a few Indian-flavoured songs in the late 1960s and early 70s.
While religion has never been as unpopular as it is now, since the dawn of rock’n’roll it has been considered uncool, and songs with a religious bent almost had to be smuggled into the charts. Why, though? If somebody sings about killing someone and we buy the record, that doesn’t mean we agree with murder. Pop history is littered with songs about cheating lovers, and if we like the tune, that doesn’t mean we condone what they’re doing. Religious content doesn’t have to be construed as ‘a message’.
When George Harrison had the masses singing My Sweet Lord in 1970, they weren’t thinking about the lyrics, and the Indian influence made it unclear who exactly this lord was anyway.
Interestingly, when the writers of the old Chiffons song, He’s So Fine, got their lawyers on the case because Harrison’s song seemed to be a straight rip-off of theirs, he said he had actually been influenced mainly by the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ 1967 hit Oh Happy Day, which had non-believing hippies singing about ‘when Jesus washed our sins away’.
Meanwhile, Billy Preston had put his burgeoning credibility right on the line with That’s The Way God Planned it, a Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton-fuelled workout that doesn’t mince its words.
Round about the same time Norman Greenbaum rose briefly from obscurity to bring us Spirit in the Sky, which would later be covered in the UK by Doctor and the Medics (1986). On a personal note, a couple of years ago I had a regular acoustic gig in a beach bar on a small Caribbean island, and when I threw in Spirit in the Sky late one night it was amusing and sort of thrilling to see some defiantly dismissive friends in the audience singing along and dancing to it.
Bob Dylan may have lost a bit of credibility and a few fans when he ‘got religion’ in the late 70s, but he eased up on it after Slow Train Coming and Saved.
And why not? A Christian motor mechanic doesn’t have to preach to his customers, although he may try to be a good ambassador for God through the way he conducts his business. And, I hear the scathing multitudes grumble, he may not.
A little beacon of the 1990s was Joan Osborne’s One of Us, written by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters, which had music fans’ heads swimming with “Yeah, yeah, God is great, and yeah, yeah, God is good”.
Considering all the thousands of songs that have floated through the charts since the 1950s, this (admittedly incomplete) list may be a meagre one, and none of these recordings may have resulted in mass conversions, but they do exist, they were hits and we all know them.
And you’ve got the Reverend Al Green, who, in addition to having what is generally regarded as the sweetest soul voice in the world, is an actual ordained (i.e. official) minister. Many of the old soul stars, from Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston, honed their vocal skills singing in church in their youth, and although Steve Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic grew up in Birmingham, England, rather than attending a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, he has been known to step in for the organist at his local church in Gloucestershire as well as singing in the choir.
All of the above are what might be termed ‘mainstream’ acts, but what of those Christian musicians who write and play nothing but religious songs? There are stars among them: names like Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin are known in every Church of England music group, their contemporary songs competing with the vast collection of hymns from the past. The main difference between Christian songs and secular ones is that the love is directed, not at ‘you baby’ but at ‘the Lord’.
Christian rock bands tend to be of the American-style big ballad persuasion, and because the emphasis is on the lyrics and the star is God rather than the lead guitarist or singer, the genre is unlikely to generate a Led Zeppelin or a Sex Pistols.
There are, though, some voices that would hold their own with the best of the atheists and agnostics. Take the Australian Darlene Zschech, for instance, one of the top singers of that country’s Hillsong United. Hillsong do a song called Made Me Glad, a powerful, ebbing and flowing piece of praise overlaid by Szech’s vocals, that can make the hairs stand up on your neck.
Could that have made the international charts, given the right promotion? In another, less cynical era, perhaps.
Well, please yourself, but it’s on my iPod, somewhere between Mad World and Maggie May.